Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Fact: American Steering Wheels Haven't Always Been On The Left

One of the many aspects of British life that Americans are so often interested in is the country's driving regulations. I have lost count of how many times I have been asked: "why do you guys drive on the left?" It is common, also, for Americans - in what is presumably intended as light-hearted banter - to talk about the relatively small size of British cars.


However, the jibes that really get me are the ones that pertain to Britain's use of right-hand steering wheels - a design that American cars themselves once employed.

The 1910 Zimmerman and 1908 Auburn were both right-hand-drive
Before the 1908 launch of the Ford Motor Company's Model T, virtually every car in the United States placed the steering wheel on the right. In fact, Ford only made the change to make it easier for people entering on the passenger side to avoid oncoming traffic.

Until this, though, long after a law was passed in 1792 mandating that vehicles - horse buggies and the like - must travel along the right-side of the road, it was widely accepted that steering should take place on the right. Evidence of this can still be seen today, in fact, in Amish communities, where horse buggies are steered in this manner.

When mass production of American cars began in the late 19th Century, it was widely viewed that right-hand steering was the preferred method, since it had evidently worked out just fine for the journeymen of yesteryear.

However, by the turn of the century, motor companies began looking for innovative new ways to sell their latest product. Cadillac introduced the first lever-operated headlights, while the Marmon Motor Company is believed to have pioneered the use of a rear-view mirror at the 1911 Indianapolis 500. And so it was that Ford introduced left-hand steering in 1908.

Because it was later seen that left-hand steering was conducive to safer driving (since it was easier for the driver to judge his or her proximity to oncoming traffic), this new way of steering became virtually standardised by the mid-1910s (it should be noted, though, that some automobiles - such as those from the Pierce Arrow line - only converted to left-hand in the early 1920s).

So what does all of this mean in regard to American perceptions of British cars? Well let's break this down into numbers: in the 221 years since the keep-right law was first introduced in the United States, right-hand steering was widely used for roughly 123 of those years. This means that for over half of that time, Americans - who, as stated above, get a good laugh out of mocking the British right-hand steering wheel - used the right-hand steering wheel.



9 comments:

Anonymous said...

There is one place in the United States where we drive on the left, the US Virgin Islands where the Danish who sold them to us in 1917 drove on the left. To this day the US Virgin Islands drive on the left, but with left hand drive American cars as right hand drive cars do not meet US Department of Transportation regulations....go figure! When I was there in the 1980s, it seemed surreal to see all these American cars driving on the left side of the road. What has always puzzled me is why European cars on the continent had right hand drive steering like the Dulage, Bugatti and Alfa-Romeo etc, when most of the continent in Europe, certainly in France and Italy drove on the right. One explaination I have seen was it was considered a safety issue on alpine roads where having view of the curbside was adventagous not to steer of the road. Early thinking in the US for carriages and early cars was the same, feeling that it was a safety issue to see what might be on the curb (kerb) since there wasn't much traffic outside the big cities. I think this was a very well thought out blog and the information was useful/

Anonymous said...

When I hear Americans discussing UK & Europeans left side driving it just reminds me their education must be fairly limited as the proportion of left to right side driving around the world is about 60/40 so although fewer are like us in the UK it's not that much less as the many countries that share the UK preference include India, Japan, Australia & many more.

http://www.zjsea.org/japanese-used-cars-sale-the-demand-for-used-car-sale-in-japan-still-exist-in-this-great-recession/ said...

verry informative

erallen said...

Indeed Anon, we are all undereducated, because we aren't tuned into the world's driving behaviors. It's a wonder we get anything done around here.

Rasal Khan said...

Really amazing

John Colwell said...

I've never heard any of my many gear head friends engage in a silly discussion about which side of a vehicle the steering wheel is mounted..for us it's not how fast you want to go it's how much do you want to spend, who gives a rat's ass about the location of the steering wheel

Anonymous said...

These comments are all very well, but do Goats like fried eggs?

rossxxxx said...

I wondered about this after watching "The Great Race" set in the 1908, or thereabouts, and both "The Leslie Special" and "The Hannibal 8" were right-hand drive.

Hayley Livingston said...

thank u

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